When she was 9, YaYa Gosselin scribbled a to-do list covering her multi-hyphenate ambitions. Starring in a “horse movie” was right near the top.
As a competitive barrel racer in her free time, the 14-year-old Dallas actress was able to check multiple boxes in Heart of a Champion, which was filmed primarily in North Texas and debuted in theaters and on digital platforms last week.
“It feels very close to my heart,” Gosselin said. “I’m around horses all the time. I love acting more, but riding horses is a close second.”
Gosselin plays Charlie, a middle-schooler struggling to focus in school after her parents’ recent divorce. Her outlook brightens after bonding with a stray horse rescued by a family friend (Casper Van Dien), who introduces her to the youth rodeo scene despite hesitation from her mother (Jojo Marie).
“We really lucked into having YaYa do this,” said director Brad Keller, who’s also based in Dallas. “She’s such a professional. She’s always ready.”
During production, Gosselin formed a bond with her on-screen equine co-star, Pepper, as well as the other horses on the ranch near Lancaster where about 70 percent of filming took place.
Keller said that given the tight production schedule, the abundance of horses and ranches in North Texas made a local shoot the best option. Some competition sequences were shot during actual rodeos in Wills Point and Red Oak.
“Texas crews are so friendly and open. It was really a pleasant experience, and everyone was really great,” Keller said. “We had some good trainers on staff and we were able to get the shots we needed. Anytime you’re dealing with animals, you don’t know, but we didn’t have any of those issues.”
Gosselin welcomed the chance to play more of a legitimate teenage role after previously making her mark as a child superhero in the Netflix adventure We Can Be Heroes and as a surfer-girl detective in the Apple series Surfside Girls. She also plays a recurring role in the network series FBI and
“It’s nice to step into this new chapter of my career where I’m getting more complex characters,” she said. “This was one of the first films ever where I had a crush.”
Despite her young age, Gosselin has worked steadily as an actor for the past five years in addition to her rodeo pursuits alongside Mister, the horse her family bought just after filming wrapped on Heart of a Champion. She also writes, dances, and plays three instruments.
But with high school on the horizon, Gosselin — who has been homeschooled since second grade — cherishes the breaks in her busy schedule to enjoy a more normal life at home in Dallas.
“I’ve been working so much since I was 8, going everywhere,” she said. I’m in a very adult business, and I haven’t had a lot of chances to just chill and be a kid. I just want to lay back and experience all the things that kids my age experience.”